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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2010-2011 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
(written by John Eisendrath; directed by Terry George; TRT: 40:48)
The network's description: "Starring Emmy Award winner Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue," "The West Wing"), "Outlaw" is a new drama from executive producer John Eisendrath ("Alias," "Felicity," "Playmakers"). Cyrus Garza (Smits) is a U.S. Supreme Court justice who abruptly quits the high-level position. A playboy and a gambler, Garza had always adhered to a strict interpretation of the law until he realized the system he believed in was flawed. Now that he's quit the bench and returned to private practice, he's determined to represent "the little guy" and use his inside knowledge of the justice system to take on today's biggest legal cases -- and he's making plenty of powerful people unhappy along the way. Jesse Bradford ("The West Wing"), Carly Pope ("24"), Ellen Woglom ("Californication") and David Ramsey ("Dexter") also star. "
What did they leave out? The temp titles refer to the project as "Garza." And look for cameos from MSNBC's "Morning Joe" crew.
The plot in a nutshell: Death row inmate/convicted cop killer Gregory Beals (apologies as I didn't recognize the actor) has one last chance to stay his execution: his lawyer, Al Druzinsky (David Ramsey), has filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. Among the court's nine hallowed members: Cyrus Garza (Jimmy Smits), an unabashed womanizer, gambler and all around wild card, who just so happens to be the swing vote in the aforementioned case. You see, Beals maintains his innocence and the evidence that would have exonerated him didn't get in because his first lawyer didn't file a brief in time. Thankfully, a protesting ACLU member reminds him of just that. And so Garza assembles his team to look into Beals's claims: tough chick/rule bending private investigator Lucinda Pearl (Carly Pope, aping "The Good Wife's" Kalinda Sharma), ambitious/by the book clerk Eddie Franks (Jesse Bradford) and dutiful/quietly pining for him aide Mereta Stockman (Ellen Woglom).
Sure enough there's some truth to Beals's claims and Garza presses for a new trial. A frustrated Senator (Richard Portnow) however reminds him that if he does overturn the Beals ruling they'll impeach him and they have the ammo to do it with Garza's less-than-clandestine lifestyle and all. Rather than take the bullet of injustice though, Garza rules in Beals's favor and then surprisingly quits, announcing he's going to resume practicing law and take on the kinds of cases that the high court lets fall through the cracks. His first client - wait for it - is Beals himself and he drafts Lucinda, Eddie and Mereta - not to mention Al, revealed to be an old friend of Garza's - to join him. And with that we jump down the rabbit hole of the usual legal procedural mechanizations as the kernels of truth begin to be pushed out.
Along the way we learn that Garza's late father was a saintly civil rights advocate, one he grew to resent over his constant "everyone's a victim" mantra. Garza in turn rebelled by embracing the conservative side of the law, a decision which created a huge void between them, his father going so far as to publically criticise his son's rulings. Since his death though, Cyrus finds his current way of doing things doesn't feel right anymore. His new practice - as part of Claire Sax's (a blink and you'll miss Gina Gershon) high profile firm - then appears to be the outlet he'll need to make peace with his father, even if it costs him all of his political capital to do it.
What works: Smits not surprisingly is a more than capable lead, often smoothing out some of the show's sharper edges. After all there are only a handful of actors who can get away with saying things like "I sleep like a baby, although for you I'd be happy to make an exception" with a straight face, and Smits is one of them.
What doesn't: It's unfortunate then that Smits's charms are lost in the show's inherent ridiculousness, as everything about the show reeks of "only on TV"-ness, from Garza's cavalier lifestyle (in what universe does this guy get confirmed, let alone stay on the court with "TMZ" around every corner?) to the paper tigers that stand in the way of Beals's innocence. Anyone with two brain cells apparently could have gotten Beals off in the 11 years he's been incarcerated, a development made all the more awkward considering that Al, the latest lawyer that couldn't make that happen, is now part of Garza's team.
Throw in some cringeworthy dialogue ("People say there's no justice," Garza declares after getting the card he needs followed by a round of applause) and some oh-yes-this-is-actually-happening plot twists (Garza covers for his bookie by saying he's his "nutritionist" and then proceeds to talk about his remaining "appointments," a development which Mereta mistakes as - no joke - Garza having only three months left to live).
Nevertheless - if you overlook the means that the show takes to get there - once the central dynamic is established (renegade judge takes on the system) there's a sense that a passable enough legal procedural could emerge. Smits seems to be having fun here, even if it's a little too overplayed for my tastes, while the supporting cast keeps enough plates spinning to move the plot along in an amicable fashion. At its heart though, I'm still waiting for Cyrus Garza to emerge as a character as for now he feels like the byproduct of "Outlaw's" high-concept pitch rather than an actual three-dimensional person. All in all, maybe there's a show in here, maybe there isn't...
The bottom line: ...the pilot isn't exactly motivating me to find out which one.